JUST as there’s a dish for every palate, there’s a food writer for every taste.
And you’ll certainly find both in plentiful supply at this weekend’s Kerrygold Ballymaloe Literary Festival of Food and Wine.
The title itself is a mouthful but then there’s an awful lot happening — cookery demos, talks, readings, debates, literary lunches, dinners and afternoon teas.
The lit-fest hopes to break all records this year and become the biggest gathering of its kind ever held on these shores.
That will take some doing. Last year, more than 10,000 food enthusiasts joined some 40 food writers, chefs and wine specialists for the three-day event.
That the festival exists at all is testament to the willingness of three generations of Allens to take on a suggestion made by Geoffrey Dobbs, founder of Galle Literary Festival
“Isn’t it about time Ballymaloe celebrated its literary tradition?” he said, listing three generations of writing cooks — Myrtle, Darina and Rachel.
Food and words have always been a tantalising combination. Food is as elemental as the air we breathe and it binds us to culture and our place in it.
It’s not surprising then that people have been writing about food for millennia. Start to dig a little and you’ll find any number of ancient gems, like this one from Greek philosopher Epictetus: “Do not discourse how people ought to eat; but eat as you ought.”
Food writing, however, wouldn’t be recognised as a skill in itself until much later.
Its first advocate, French lawyer and politician Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin’s seminal book The Philosopher in the Kitchen was published in 1825 — and it’s been in print ever since.
He was the first to suggest that we are what we eat. “Tell me what you eat and I will tell you what you are,” he wrote in the early 1800s.
He also had a glorious turn of phrase: “A dessert without cheese is like a pretty woman with only one eye,” he once said.
Another memorable food phase comes from the pen of famous Victorian cookery writer Isabella Beeton. In her recipe for rabbit pie, she supposedly started, “first, catch your rabbit…”
Alas, like many a good yarn, there’s not a grain of truth in it though her book Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management outsold (60,000 copies) Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations when both were published in 1861.
The world of food writing has taken many twists and turns since then. We’ve honoured the likes of Elizabeth David, Julia Child and Delia Smith but it is only in recent years that writing about food has become about much more than just recipes.
In 2000, American chef Anthony Bourdain made it edgy, cool and explosive with his bestselling book Kitchen Confidential, a no-holds-barred journey through New York’s culinary underbelly. He did something truly wonderful too — he made it perfectly acceptable for a man to cook and write.
Food writing is now a rich and varied thing, embracing food campaigners, scientists, memoirists, innovators, bloggers, organic farmers and foodies of every hue.
Just consider the top three guests at this weekend’s festival — Alice Waters, April Bloomfield and Christian F Puglisi. Their presence says much about the pull of Ballymaloe, but it speaks volumes about how food and the words used to describe it are enjoying a renaissance.
Alice Waters, owner of Chez Panisse Restaurant and Café in Berkeley, California, has championed local, sustainable agriculture for more than 40 years.
She writes too — her latest cookbook, The Art of Simple Food II encourages people to cook at home and to use their gardens to supply fresh, seasonal ingredients.
April Bloomfield is the chef at New York’s Michelin-starred The Spotted Pig. Her new book, A Girl And Her Greens, explains why her heart belongs to the humble spud and all things veg.
You won’t be surprised either to hear that Christian Puglisi, co patron of Copenhagen’s Relæ and former sous chef of Noma, has also written a book, Relæ: A book of Ideas.
In it, he describes how he cast aside the napkin-folding, water-pouring fustiness of posh restaurants and opened a sustainable, high-quality and plant-centric restaurant in a run-down street in Copenhagen.
* For more on food, wine and words to make a meal of, see www.litfest.ie
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